“It’s a very sad moment,” Donald Trump declared from the White House podium early on election morning, as he accused his opponents of perpetrating “a major fraud upon our nation”. Mr Trump was right about the sadness of the moment. But the real sorrow is when a sitting American president attempts to call into question the integrity of the electoral process.
By the early hours of the US morning, Mr Trump had performed better than predicted by the polls, winning the crucial states of Florida, Ohio and Texas. Neither he nor Joe Biden, his Democratic opponent, has secured the 270 electoral college votes needed. Like Mr Biden, Mr Trump still has a path to victory through fair means. The election is so close that it may well come down to a few thousand votes, scattered across a handful of states — as it did in 2016, 2004 and 2000.
Yet, with millions of absentee ballots still to be counted and some key states in play, the president chose to declare victory and cry fraud. Mr Trump demanded that the Supreme Court should intervene to stop the counting of the votes.
The president has been signalling for weeks his readiness to dispute the outcome of the election by claiming that the ballot was tainted or rigged. His chequered record puts a great responsibility on the people and institutions he relies upon to now contain him. It is their integrity that will be put to the test. Every vote that was legitimately cast has to be counted. The votes must be verified and the democratic process respected. If this takes many more hours, even days, so be it.
It is incumbent on institutions, including the president’s own cabinet, the Republican party, state legislatures and the American judiciary to put their own political passions and preferences to one side. Their first loyalty is to the American democratic process.
Although the behaviour of the Republican party and its cheerleaders in the media has been disappointing for the past four years, there are some tentative signs that they may not blindly follow Mr Trump down his chosen path. It was striking that Mike Pence, his vice-president, did not explicitly endorse the president’s claim that a fraud was being perpetrated on the America people. It is also noteworthy that Fox News, which Mr Trump has often relied upon to echo his claims and talking points, declared that Arizona had gone for the Democrats — well before the Trump camp was prepared to accept defeat in the state.
These are small signs of independence — and they may not survive the storm that could break. But those who fear the worst for US democracy need not succumb to fatalism. Mr Trump’s enablers may not all play the roles allotted to them by the president.
Whatever the ultimate outcome of this election, the voting starkly highlights the social, economic and political fissures in America. As in 2016, the country appears split down the middle — with the Democrats continuing to hold their edge on the coasts and in the cities and Republican support strong in small towns, rural areas and the middle of the country.
The task of responsible leaders is to bring their divided nation together around a shared respect for the democratic process. Tragically, if all too predictably, Mr Trump is already failing this test.